He was convicted of robbing banks in Nebraska, but the University of Washington took a chance and admitted Shon Hopwood to law school, and the Gates Scholarship Program is paying for his education.

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When classes started at the University of Washington on Monday, Shon Hopwood could have been mistaken for just another law-school student — scouting out the location of his first class in Gates Hall, shouldering a heavy backpack of legal texts.

But Hopwood is no ordinary law student.

The 37-year-old father of two served 10 years in federal prison for robbing five banks in the late 1990s. While in prison, he became such an adept jailhouse lawyer that two of his petitions were reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“People that knew me before prison — they shake their heads,” said Hopwood, now in his second year of law school. “They shake their heads over me writing.”

That’s another thing about Hopwood: This summer, his memoir, “Law Man,” written with co-writer Dennis Burke, was published by Crown Publishing.

“There are so many things about him that are amazing and interesting,” said Michele Storms, assistant dean for public-service law at the UW.

“That whole prison lawyer thing? That’s no small potatoes,” Storms said. “He obviously had an incredible intellectual capacity, but through a series of bad choices — very bad choices — and a lack of motivation, went down the wrong path.”

Storms is director of the Gates Public Service Law Program, which has awarded Hopwood a full-ride scholarship — one of five awarded each year to incoming law students who commit to at least five years in a public-service law practice after graduating.

The $33 million program was created in 2005 to honor Bill Gates Sr., the lawyer and UW regent, by his son, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, and his wife, Melinda.

“A passion for justice”

Hopwood was chosen for the honor because “the thing we’re really looking for with these scholars is a passion for justice,” Storms said. And Hopwood “has experienced it; he’s witnessed it.”

A college dropout, Hopwood was working a menial job in his hometown of David City, Nebraska, in 1997 when he hit upon the idea of robbing banks for excitement and money. When he was caught a year later, he pleaded guilty to the armed robberies and was sentenced to serve 12 years.

Hopwood believes his sentence was fair.

But in prison, the mild-mannered inmate met dozens of other men whose prison time seemed out of line with the scope of their crime. One, John Fellers, had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for trafficking in methamphetamines — fingered by a group of drug dealers who were trying to reduce their own sentences by implicating others.

Told by police that he’d been indicted by a grand jury for drug trafficking, Fellers — who had by that time quit drugs and had none in his possession — began talking to the officers about his past involvement with drugs, not realizing his words would be taken as a confession.

“I felt bad for him, because I knew a rich guy with a high-level lawyer would be out on his boat right now, not in prison,” Hopwood wrote in his book, “Law Man.”

After studying the case day and night, Hopwood filed a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that Fellers should have been read his Miranda rights after he was told of the indictment.

Hopwood’s petition was one of more than 7,000 the court received that year. The likelihood of the Supreme Court taking up any petition — much less one written by a prison inmate — was exceedingly low, Hopwood said; the court only took eight that year. “It’s like 1 percent of 1 percent.”

And then Hopwood got another lucky break: Seth Waxman, the lawyer who agreed to represent Fellers without payment, said he wanted Hopwood to assist him on the case. Waxman — a former United States solicitor general who has often argued cases before the Supreme Court — and his staff asked Hopwood to review drafts of the briefs and research relevant Miranda decisions.

“Had it been a different Supreme Court attorney, my level of involvement would not have been the same,” Hopwood said. “They would have said, ‘All right, mister jailhouse lawyer with no college degree, we’ll handle it from here.’ “

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in Fellers’ favor, and a lower court reduced his sentence by four years.

Hopwood was released from prison two years early, in 2008, after being awarded time off for good behavior. During his time in prison, he said, he helped a dozen other prisoners get sentence reductions of three to 10 years. A second petition of his was also accepted by the Supreme Court.

Hopwood married a woman from his hometown, Ann Marie Metzner, whom he’d courted while in prison. He finished his bachelor’s degree from Bellevue University in Nebraska, and in 2010 began applying to law schools.

Diligent and respected

Why did the UW take a chance on him?

“It’s a good question,” said UW law-school dean Kellye Testy.

One of the school’s main goals is to foster leadership, she said, so the admissions team looks beyond test scores and grade-point averages, choosing candidates who have experienced hardships that might lead them to a greater understanding of those whose lives have been less fortunate.

“All the things we’d really like to see in someone who’d use law to achieve justice — we saw it there with Shon,” she said.

And it’s worked out “better than anyone could have imagined,” Testy said. “He’s a really diligent student and his peers respect him. Our faculty respect him. He’s really brought a spark to the law school.”

Testy said — and Hopwood acknowledged — that as a felon, he may have difficultly being admitted to the bar to practice law. That decision lies with the bar associations in the states where he applies. They would consider his crimes in weighing his character and fitness to practice law.

But Hopwood, who became a devout Christian after he left prison, says he could still use his training in other legal work. And he believes he’s been given an unusual series of lucky breaks he can use to shed light on inequities in the criminal-justice system.

For example, he recently heard about a man who was arrested for a string of bank robberies similar to his own. The prosecutor pushed the case aggressively and after the accused was convicted, the judge handed down a sentence of 213 years — more than what many defendants get for murder.

Hopwood hopes people who hear his story take away this message:

A lot of people make bad choices in their 20s. “There’s a compelling case to be made to give people a second chance,” he said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.